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Superman Week Day 1: Kirk Alyn in Superman (1948)

Superman 1948Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennett & Thomas Carr

Writers: George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, Royal K. Cole

Cast: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Carol Forman, George Meeker, Jack Ingram, Pierre Watkin, Terry Frost, Charles King, Charles Quigley, Herbert Rawlingson, Forrest Taylor, Stephen Carr, Rusty Wescoatt, Robert Barron, Virginia Carroll, Ed Cassidy, Mason Alan Dinehart, Nelson Leigh, Luana Walters

Plot: On the distant planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Nelson Leigh) has discovered his world is being drawn towards its sun. He and his wife, Lara (Luana Walters) prepare an experimental spacecraft that would allow his people to escape the world’s destruction, but only has time to complete a prototype before the cataclysm begins. Unable to rescue the people of Krypton, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El into the ship and sends him away just before their world is destroyed.  Landing on the planet Earth, the infant is found by Eben and Martha Kent (Ed Cassidy and Virginia Carroll), who adopt the child and raise him as their own. As he grows up, young Clark Kent (played by Ralph Hodges as a teenager, then Kirk Alyn as an adult) discovers he has the power to fly, incredible strength, super-hearing, and a sort of “X-Ray vision.” When he reaches adulthood, Eben implores his son to use his power for good. Martha makes a special indestructible uniform from the blankets he was wrapped in on his way to Earth, and Clark goes out into the world.

Wearing his costume and using the name “Superman,” Clark saves a train, whose passengers include Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), from derailing on a broken track. Clark later approaches Planet editor Perry White (Pierre Watkin) for a job, as working at a newspaper will allow him to stay up-to-date on potential danger that needs Superman’s intervention. Although reluctant to hire the neophyte, Perry gives Clark a chance when he claims to be able to get inside a collapsed mine to get the story. Naturally, Lois is after the same story, and gets trapped inside. As this is a movie serial, this begins a series of disasters roughly every 15 to 20 minutes, which require Superman’s intervention.

Clark gets the mine story and the job at the Planet, and both his career and Superman’s begin. The Man of Steel is soon considered a national hero, and is summoned to Washington D.C. to help guard an experimental “Reducer Ray” developed by the government. A mysterious villainess called the Spider Lady (Carol Forman) plans to turn the technology for evil. A meteor shower later brings chunks of the destroyed planet Krypton to Earth, and Clark discovers exposure to the radioactive rocks saps his power and, with prolonged exposure, could kill him, or at the very least, make it harder for him to wrap this plot up in about seven seconds.

Over the course of the serial’s 15 episodes, Spider Lady tries time and again to trap or kill Superman, often with Lois and/or Jimmy (and even Perry White, on rare occasions) getting caught up in the schemes, but he always manages to pull through. In the final segments, the Spider Lady gets on the radio to announce she’s perfected the Reducer Ray and will use it to destroy the Daily Planet building in nearly four hours. Rather than… y’know… evacuate the building, the police ask them to keep quiet and everyone carries on with business as usual. Lois and Jimmy get a tip that the ignition systems of cars are oddly breaking down, and reason that the Ray may be responsible, so they decide to fly a plane into the area. Suddenly, and with no warning (except for the fact that cars are oddly breaking down), their plane breaks down, crashes, and they’re captured again by the Spider-Lady. Superman fakes a Kryptonite reaction to trick one of the Spider Lady’s henchmen to bring him to her hideout. He finally faces the villain, who stumbles into her own device and is killed, proving once again that criminals really need  to build their hideouts according to OSHA requirements. Returning to the Planet office, Lois and Jimmy find Clark “asleep” at his desk, wake him, and they all have a good laugh over a woman’s brutal death.

Thoughts: It saddens me how Kirk Alyn has been forgotten by so many Superman fans. The first live-action Superman may not have made the mark on history that some of the others did, but by virtue of being first, he deserves at least some respect. It especially saddens me because Alyn is really good in the role. His Clark Kent has a sweet earnestness about him, and his Superman brings just the power the role demands. Alyn seems to take his inspiration from the Max Fleischer-directed animated features from the early 40s, almost perfectly replicating voice actor Bud Collyer’s change in tenor from Clark Kent’s high-pitched “This looks like a job…” then plunging into a powerful baritone with “…for Superman!”Alyn’s performance is almost Collyer’s brought to life. These days, Warner Bros seems intent on keeping every incarnation of the character as different from the others as possible. In 1948 the producers of this film drew on the Collyer’s well-known voice from the shorts and from the radio. The story is even credited as being “adapted from” the popular radio program. Synergy may not have been a corporate buzzword yet, but it was there.

Noel Neill was a prototypical Lois Lane, with a wardrobe and hairstyle lifted directly from the comics of the time, and a nice, biting sort of sarcasm that set her eternally apart from the wallflower females that surrounded the typical action hero of the era. Neill’s Lois is smart, confident, and fearless, perfectly willing to stumble into the most dangerous situations in pursuit of her story. At times, this can make her seem reckless or foolhardy, bumbling into the most obvious kind of trap, such as at the end of the series where she has Jimmy fly a plane into an area specifically because car engines are malfunctioning there, never stopping to think that a plane engine isn’t that different a device. There’s a delicate line that has to be walked here – Lois can seem single-minded and even unconcerned with danger, but the minute she looks foolish the character loses everything that makes her work and turns her into the caricature she often becomes in the hands of lesser writers or actresses. Neill usually walks that line very well, rarely straying too far into the territory that makes Lois look bad.

This movie serial wraps itself in the trappings of the comic book of the era, including using scenes from the comic to introduce each chapter. The opening chapter on Krypton also feels like a classic sci-fi film – the “distant planet” of “superior aliens” that’s clearly a bunch of guys in robes standing on a set that looks like it was drawn up by the artist of the Buck Rogers comic strip. It’s a little silly, a little cheesy, but all the more charming for that.

Even more charming are the special effects, most of which are animated sequences overlaid on the live-action. The first time we see Superman fly, Alyn literally transforms into a cartoon and zooms into a burning building. It was at that point I pretty much fell in love with this film. There’s really no attempt at anything resembling real physics, either. The “Reducer Ray” is powered by the natural reducing rays that bombard Earth all the time (look out your window, you’ll probably see them), and at one point Superman sees through somebody’s disguise by using his X-Ray Vision on a photograph of that person, which is somehow both ludicrous and awesome.

It’s interesting how much of a slow burn was permissible back then. The first two chapters of the serial are concerned entirely with Superman’s origins from outer space and establishing himself in Metropolis, both as a hero and as a reporter. There isn’t even a hint of the serial’s main plot – the battle with Spider Lady over the Reducer Ray – until chapter three. These days there’d be a compulsion to work such a thing in artificially, much earlier, possibly even trying to tie it in to the hero’s origin, all supposedly in the name of creating a more “sophisticated” story. If nothing else, this serial is evidence that sometimes a lack of sophistication can be a glorious thing.

As is often the case with these older movies, the modern part of the brain feels the need to invoke certain tropes and gimmicks that hadn’t quite been developed yet. In the Chapter 3 cliffhanger, for example, a scientist shows Clark Kent a meteor he has discovered, and Clark collapses, nearly dead. When Chapter 4 begins and Clark lies there, you want to shout at the screen: “It’s Kryptonite, you idiot! Close the box!” But this is 1948 – Superman as a character is only ten years old, and Kryptonite is an even newer invention (first created for the radio show before migrating to the comic books). Being so young, though, the film is also able to avoid certain bits that would become common shtick later on. In later adaptations, if Clark is threatened by Kryptonite when he’s not in his Superman suit he’d come up with some sort of lame excuse to explain why the meteor seemed to affect a mild-mannered reporter. In 1948? What the hell, he’s a scientist, right? Why not reveal your secret identity? If you can’t trust a professor, who can you trust?

For all the charm, this isn’t a movie that has a particularly high opinion of its audience. The voiceover narration can sometimes be rather intrusive… it’s hamfisted in the early chapters, giving us virtually every beat of the plot, especially on Krypton. Once we get to Earth and the story begins in earnest, a little recap at the beginning of each chapter is to be expected. But is it really necessary for the narrator to announce every time Superman uses his super-hearing or X-Ray vision, as if the fact that the wall of the safe just vanished before our eyes won’t be enough to clue us in as to what’s happening? Even the death of his foster parents is done away with quickly in a voiceover – Martha gives him his uniform and we cut to him leaving the house with a suitcase as the narrator helpfully tells us, “Okay, the Kents are dead now.”

Alyn would play Superman once more in the 1950 serial Atom Man Vs. Superman, but then was  replaced by George Reeves, who went on to play Superman in the Adventures of Superman TV show and wound up pretty much defining the character for over 20 years. We’re going to spend some time tomorrow with Reeves in his one cinematic appearance as the Man of Steel in Superman and the Mole-Men.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


Batman Week Day 1: Lewis Wilson in Batman (1943)

Batman 1943Welcome, friends to Batman Week, the first in the ongoing Reel to Reel: Icons series. Each week in this series we’re going to take a look at a different character and five different actors who have brought him or her to life. We begin today, in 1943, with the first ever on-screen appearance of the Caped Crusader himself, Batman.

Director: Lambert Hillyer

Writer: Victor McCleod, Leslie Swabaker, Harry L. Fraser

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Gus Glassmire, Sam Flint, Robert Fiske, Charles Middleton

Plot: In this version, Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) are America’s premiere government-sanctioned crimefighters. They round up a gang of criminals who warn them he’s crossing “Dr. Daka,” but Batman has no time to investigate… he’s got a date coming up with Linda Page (Shirley Patterson).  Linda is concerned about her uncle Martin (Gus Glassmire), and as it turns out, she has good reason. Martin is kidnapped by thugs and brought before Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who introduces himself as a servant of Hirohito, sent to destroy the United States government and enslave the people of America. Daka drugs Martin and forces him to reveal the location of a radium supply, which he plans to use to power a new secret weapon: a ray capable creating reducing even the hardest substance to powder.

I’m going to get heavily abbreviated with the plot synopsis here: for the next 15 chapters, Daka comes up with one scheme after another to get some radium – stealing it, kidnapping the owner of a radium mine, intercepting a supply being airlifted from a plane, etc. Each time, Batman and Robin stumble upon the plot and thwart it, only surviving by the skin of their teeth, because in the 1940s superheroes were either thrown from a precipice or caught in an explosion every 15 to 20 minutes.  Fortunately, there was always a convenient scaffold or rope beneath them or a convenient archway above them to protect them from falling debris.

Eventually, Daka manages to get his hands on some radium and make a larger, more powerful radium gun. He captures Linda (this is the third or fourth time), and brings her to his lab where he subjects her to a machine that transforms people into brainwashed zombies that will do his bidding.  Batman rushes to the rescue, but is overwhelmed by the zombies and strapped into the machine. Before Daka can unmask him or activate the device, Robin arrives and captures the villain. With Batman free, he makes Daka show him how to reverse Linda’s brainwashing. Daka makes a play to escape, but tumbles into his own open alligator pit, because what’s a supervillain lair without an open alligator pit? When the police arrive, Batman allows them to take the credit for the bust. At the end, Bruce Wayne walks off with Linda, sad that he once again missed seeing the world-famous Batman.

Thoughts: Made only four years after Batman’s first comic book appearance, this early film shows a version of the character that’s still somewhat unformed. While director Lambert Hillyer attempts to bring in a sort of dark warrior approach, comic book characters at the time (and for a long time to come) always seemed to invite a sort of camp element. The first image of Batman in the movie, even, shows him sitting in the Batcave behind a desk that looks like Bruce Wayne had it taken out of an unused office in his corporate headquarters, washed out by too much light with bat-shaped shadows dancing across his face. This lasts long enough for Robin to show up, complete with a curly-topped white ‘fro, and Batman beams like grandpa seeing his children coming over for a visit in the nursing home. All I can do at this point is cross my fingers and hope it’s at least better than anything Joel Schumacher ever did.

Fortunately for us all, it is.

Lewis Wilson’s Batman is far more flippant than the character he would become, and there’s little sign of most of the elements that would make him so popular in the future. There’s no Commissioner Gordon (even though he appeared in the very first Batman comic), no familiar foes, not even a Batmobile. The only things that mark this as a Batman film, in the eyes of a modern fan, are Batman and Robin themselves, Alfred, and the “Bat’s Cave” headquarters. (Ironically, this film actually created the Batcave concept – the cave set was left over from another film, re-used as Batman’s headquarters to save on production costs, and made so much sense they imported the headquarters into the comic books as well.)

Wilson’s version of Batman is also less driven than other versions… the sheer obsession that motivates the character in most other incarnations isn’t present at all… in fact, his origin (including the death of his parents) is never mentioned throughout the course of the story. What’s more, this is a Batman who is uncomfortably comfortable with the deaths of his adversaries, casually allowing Daka’s men to die when their vehicle goes off a cliff and not batting an eye as Alfred fires a pistol at them (although this could potentially be justified as him knowing there’s little chance of Alfred actually hitting anything). The filmmakers do manage to work in a least a few familiar tropes, including an amusing scene where one of the henchmen suggests that Batman may actually be this “Bruce Wayne” fella who keeps turning up, but Daka dismisses the idea that such a fool could be the Batman. We more often see this particular cliché applied to Clark Kent, but over the years the Bruce Wayne masquerade has left Batman open to it from time to time as well. There’s also a rather amusing bit towards the end where the villains decide they’ve killed Batman so many times that there must be multiple men wearing the costume… and maybe Wayne really is one of them after all (another conceit which later stories have explored from time to time).

One thing that doesn’t help the film is how little detective work Batman actually does. Even in his early days, he was painted as a crimefighter with a fierce mind, but this Batman doesn’t show much of that at all, stumbling into the information he needs through luck. There’s the occasional moment of trickery, such as when he cons one of Daka’s thugs into calling for help so he can get the phone number and find their hideout, but even then, it doesn’t come off as particularly clever. Instead, the thug looks stupid for falling into the most obvious trap imaginable. It helps Batman crack the case, but it doesn’t do wonders for his reputation.

Batman 1943 DVDThe fight scenes showcase just how far filmmaking has come since the 1940s… the stunts are often more laughable than thrilling. Wilson is particularly unimpressive as he struggles against the crooks, looking more like the fake Batmen who would get caught by the real one over 60 years later in The Dark Knight than the Dark Knight himself. On the other hand, Douglas Croft’s Robin is actually impressive – a whirling dervish of energy that is believably formidable. This is probably due to the serial format, of course – each chapter (effectively every 15-to-20 minutes of the film) has to end with a cliffhanger, most of which require you to place your hero in mortal danger. It’s a staple of the format, but it winds up leaving Batman looking rather ineffective, with Robin (a character who, in other films and media, was sometimes portrayed as being so useless he was called the “boy hostage”) there to consistently save his ass again and again.

William Austin’s Alfred is distinctly different from the comic book depiction of the character at the time – a plump bumbler. This version, though, became iconic, and Alfred’s thin frame and thin mustache in the comics have been based on Austin’s appearance ever since. His frequent propensity to disguise himself would make its way into the comics as well, eventually evolving into a rather complicated backstory where Alfred was both a celebrated actor and a British secret agent before finally following in his father’s footsteps as the Wayne family butler.

As this was a World War II-era film, the propaganda machine is in full force. Bruce Wayne casually mentions a (false) 4-F status to explain why he’s not in the army, and the villain’s hideout is in the Japanese section of town, which has been – and I’m quoting the narrator here – “cleaned out of those shifty-eyed Japs.” Try to picture a movie getting away with a line like that today, even ironically. Then we meet Daka himself, an unflattering Japanese stereotype if ever there were one. He’s sly, cruel, with a “twisted Oriental brain” (that line courtesy of Uncle Martin) bent on destroying the good old US of A. He’s just a pointy beard and kimono away from being Fu Manchu himself. Even when one of his henchmen turns against him (seconds before his death), his betrayal comes with a healthy dose of anti-Japanese racism, referencing his cowardice as matching the color of his skin, among other things. Daka also falls into some generic supervillain stereotypes – the arrogance that comes with the role, for example. He also uses the Bond Villain trope two decades before Bond does – when he finally has Batman captured in his hideout, he gloats instead of killing or even unmasking him, just long enough for Robin to show up and stop him.

As befit the serials of the time, which needed to pad themselves out for a few months, the plot seems unnecessarily complex. The scene where Bruce impersonates a Swami to warn Linda away from the investigation, for example, is pointless. She winds up unconscious (again) anyway, and the whole episode could easily have been sidestepped… there’s almost no plot progression at all, and we roll straight into Batman chasing the thugs to try to save the radium. In fact, the radium angle leads into one mini adventure after another where the goal is always the same: Daka is trying to get his hands on some radium, Batman stumbles into the plot and tries to thwart it, over and over and over again without actually changing anything. One could easily jump from episode four to about thirteen and still have no problem understanding the ending of the series. I’ll give Daka this much – he’s not like some supervillains who give up on a perfectly good scheme the first time it’s thwarted – but watching the entire serial in one sitting displays how repetitive the storytelling was. Daka comes across as foolish, even naive, considering how many times his men promise him, cross their hearts, and pinky swear that they really did kill Batman this time, honest, and he always believes them, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This serial is fondly remembered, and for good reason. There’s some silly charm to it, if you can get past the severe culture shock of the way our heroes treat not only the Japanese villain, but the Japanese in general. It may be remembered as just a footnote, however, if not for what came next… a rerelease of this film in the 60s helped stir up support for the then-weakening Batman franchise, and led to 20th Century Fox taking a chance on producing a TV show. That show had more in common with this camp Batman than the dark hero he would later become, but its popularity helped save Batman from going away entirely like many of the other heroes born during World War II. If not for this serial, you see, we may never have had the incarnation of the hero we’re going to talk about tomorrow: Adam West’s Batman.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!